By: Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP

Sexual harassment and assault have come to the forefront of American culture this year, as allegations against politicians, actors, employers and cultural leaders emerge. Simply watching the evening news can feel overwhelming for people who have experienced sexual assault firsthand.

Sexual harassment can be traumatic — but there is hope. A clear understanding of the dynamics behind harassment can help provide insight into its impact on mental health and well-being and bring strength and healing to both individuals and workplaces.

Understanding Sexual Harassment

#MeTooSexual harassment usually targets attributes related to a person’s sex or gender, which, it’s important to note, are two different things. A person’s sex is usually identified at birth and based on physical anatomy and genetics, while gender is often self-defined and based on how that person identifies with social roles, attributes or culturally normative behaviors. So, for instance, a person may have been born with the physical characteristics of the male sex but identify with a female gender.

Sexual harassment happens to people from all backgrounds and cannot be blamed on clothing, personal presentation or behaviors of the victim. People who have endured this harassment did not want this to happen, nor do they “ask for it” in any way. Sexual harassment may not be obvious or blatant, and it can occur in small ways for extended periods of time.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment in very specific parameters, including:

  • Unwelcome requests, comments, offensive remarks or gestures that occur because of the person’s sex or gender
  • Offensive comments, gestures or stories that may be indirect, such as making derogatory comments about a person’s body or about women, men or the LGBTQ population in general
  • Basing merits, raises, bonuses or opportunities on the victim’s ability to withstand harassment
  • The creation of an offensive or hostile work environment through ongoing harassment1

Most studies on the impact of sexual harassment center around women, as women are most often harassed in the workplace. Studies show that as many as one in three women have reported experiences of sexual harassment, and experts agree that most cases go unreported, which would make that number even higher.2 Men are also victims of sexual harassment, and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that 16.6 percent of all sexual harassment claims were filed by men in 2016.3

Contrary to media portrayals, sexual harassment is not always loud, overt or blatantly hostile, so it can be hard to identify clearly. In the workplace, it can happen almost anywhere, and harassers can be supervisors, coworkers and even customers. These situations become particularly tense when the victim’s income, performance or promotions are affected by the harasser.

The Link Between Sexual Harassment and Mental Health

There’s often a great deal of fear and power differential in cases of sexual harassment. One study found that as many as 75 percent of women who have been harassed did not come forward about their experiences.4 Women don’t report these situations because they’re afraid of losing their job and experiencing more harassment. This is compounded by the fact that many women may not be able to provide for their families without their current employment.

This chronic tension can lead to a number of mental health concerns, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Substance use disorder

Studies show, without a doubt, that ongoing sexual harassment leads to higher levels of depressed mood and may lead to long-term depression throughout the victim’s life. These elevated levels of stress and depression can also lead to increased rates of workplace absence, illness and long-term physical health conditions.5

These effects are even more intense for women and men who have survived sexual abuse, trauma or previous harassment incidents. These past traumas may trigger old, painful memories and fears. It becomes very difficult to grow a career, think clearly and come up with new ideas and input for projects. These issues often begin to impact job security, earning potential, income and even security in housing or receiving adequate nutrition.6

Sexual harassment doesn’t just cause individual distress. It also affects employers by leading to more employee sick time, decreased productivity and lost sales for the business. Many people are afraid to report their experiences for fear of being pushed out of their job, and this anxiety registers in the brain as a threat to safety, wellness and financial security. This constant stressor adds up. Sexual harassment is a BIG deal that can destroy the self-confidence and health of its victims while undermining the goals of the larger corporation and society as a whole.

Healing After Sexual Harassment

If you’ve experienced sexual harassment, you’ve probably felt a great deal of anxiety. You may have even experienced sleepless nights, wondering how to deal with the situation in the safest, most diplomatic way possible.

  • First, know that you are not alone and this is not your fault. As awareness grows through movements like #metoo, both women and men have been raising their voices in solidarity to speak out against this epidemic. This strong community of supporters and survivors offers hope that healing is possible. Even large corporations, media conglomerates and small, family-owned businesses acknowledge a need for greater action and awareness.
  • There are government and nonprofit organizations that can help. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the US Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau and the National Association of Working Women offer sexual harassment helplines.
  • Take this opportunity to seek help for any co-occurring issues Maybe you’ve struggled with anxiety, depression or trauma in the past. Or perhaps you’ve been trying to self-medicate these negative feelings with drugs, alcohol or other addictive behaviors. You may be able to benefit from specialized recovery support.

You deserve to feel safe. If we can help you on your journey, call our confidential helpline today to speak with an admissions coordinator about the best treatment options for you. Skywood offers recovery programs to treat trauma, addiction, depression and other issues. Our supportive environment and dedicated clinicians can help you move forward in your life with clarity and purpose.


Sources:

1Sexual Harassment.” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Accessed November 8, 2017.

2 Vagianos, Alanna. “One in 3 Women Has Been Sexually Harassed at Work.” Huffington Post, February 19, 2015.

3Charges Alleging Sex-Based Harassment (Charges filed with EEOC) FY 2010 – FY 2016.” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Accessed November 8, 2017.

4 Thorpe, JR. “Workplace Sexual Harassment Linked to Damaging Mental Health Consequences, Depending On Who’s Doing the Harassing.” Bustle, October 2017.

5 Houle, Jason N., et al. “The Impact of Sexual Harassment on Depressive Symptoms During the Early Occupational Career.” Society and Mental Health, July 1, 2011.

6 McLaughlin, Heather, et al. “The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment on Working Women.” Gender & Society, May 10, 2017.